Few historians or art critics will argue with the notion that art culture reflects the culture from which it arises. (Some may claim, often accurately, that art forecasts cultural shifts or upheavals as well, of course.) Take the ever more chilling paintings of Goya as Napoleon’s jackboots ran roughshod over much of Europe in the early 19th century. Take ever lighter and brighter works of Monet, Manet, and their ilk as the world—or at least the Western World—grew ever more peaceful and profitable toward the end of that same century (never mind about that whole thing that started a bit later in 1914).
Pablo Picasso’s horrifically beautiful “Guernica,” veritably ripped out of the artist by the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Or Wordsworth’s almost (but not quite) gut-wrenchingly saccharine poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud written when Britain was at relative calm and still greatly ascendant.
And take such soul-stirring quotations as: “You threatened my world with war. You might not be glad that you did . . .” from 2012’s The Avengers, which at the time of publication is nearing the $1.5 billion mark in worldwide gross ticket sales.
Let that settle for a minute. That means a film that opened three months ago has surpassed over a dozen nations’ nominal GDP in revenue. So far. That’s ridiculous. But it’s good, to put it simply. Americans—and indeed citizens of the world—seem to feel ascendant again. Perhaps it will be a slow climb, but the indicators are there, from a cosine-shaped curvy but rising Dow Jones Industrial Average to a slow-but-recovering housing market to the (oh god how I hate this term . . . sigh) boffo box office, we seem to be on the mend, on the rise. And look, now a new Spider-Man film is out! And a Dark Knight is rising.
Now, I hear what you’re saying: “Movies, like lipstick, have always weathered economic downturns as they are considered by many an affordable luxury.” I hear you! And also, some of you may be spitting out your chai martinis to see me mention Wordsworth and a film featuring the abominable, magical villain Loki in the same article. Calm yourselves—or don’t, actually; I’ve already hopped a plane to Cleveland. Yes, attending the cinema has always remained popular in times of economic peril and general unrest. As for the second point, perhaps my tone will suffice, but take as evidence of this growing sense of ease as not just the revenue of the films now emerging but the kind of films themselves: their subject matter, tone, focus, etc.
In the early 1920s, director Robert Wiene made the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Why? Well, perhaps it was because being German in the early 1920s basically meant you were not all that—what’s the word?—happy. A product of the times, you see? From the 1960s into the early- to mid-1980s, Americans were consuming films like Dr. Strangelove, The Towering Inferno, and The Day After. Why? Well, there was this Cold War which manifested itself in many forms, one of them being the Vietnam War, another being constant fear of nuclear annihilation; there was that whole loss of faith in America that came in the wake of the Watergate Scandal; there was a gas crisis . . . there was a lot of bad stuff, punctuated by some moon landings and social progress.
Thus much of the cinema of the time (in case you have not noticed, this piece is focused on films. I mentioned that “high art” stuff earlier because for much of human history? No cinema. And no, I’m not saying much of film is not high art. But I will say that lots of it isn’t) was bleak, or at least fraught. Today we are entering, if we are not in it already, a period of relatively optimistic storytelling in much of our mainstream cinema. Even films like The Hunger Games that portray a dystopian world tell stories of triumph against the forces of evil. Now, take 1984? Yeah . . . not so much of a triumph for ol’ Winston there, was it?
I would posit that the film culture of the early second decade of the third millennia C.E. more closely cleaves to the zeitgeist of 1940s and ’50s Hollywood cinema than that of any other time. (And I would also posit that that sentence . . . is awesome.) The top domestic grossing film of the ’50s? Singing in the Rain. No, it’s not at all the same as The Avengers. But I think one could make an argument—possibly facile, but not painfully facile—that there is more in common between those two films than, say, Caligari or The Day After and The Avengers. Why?
Steven John has been an avid reader for as long as he can remember, and has been writing for almost that long as well. Most of his early writing you will never, ever see. But as for some of his more recent writing, namely his debut novel Three A.M., he admonishes you to read it and force—er, ask—all your friends to do the same. He is currently at work on his third novel and a host of side projects. Track his wanderings at www.StevenJohnBooks.com.
Read other posts by Steven John at Criminal Element.